Squats: Barbell VS. Smith Machine

There are few topics that irritate me as much as those who argue for the legitimacy of the Smith machine in an athlete’s proper strength training program. A few of the more common arguments include:

  1. Smith squats are good for those starting out, who don’t know how to squat.

  2. Smith squats are safer because they allow you to squat without a spotter.

  3. Smith squats are no different than squats with a real barbell.

If you have been around LBEB for any amount of time, you know our opinion of things like the leg press and the smith machine for strength and size development, but for those that don’t, let’s take a little journey and pick apart some of the common arguments presented above. 1. Smith squats are good for those starting out, who don’t know how to squat.

We hear this argument a lot, usually from the same crowd that say “Hey, at least they are off their butts and doing something!” The problem that arises from this argument is that the Smith squat and barbell squat are similar mostly in name, and little else. The feet must be placed in front of the Smith bar in order to compensate for the guided path of the Smith machine, causing a shear on the knees, as well as a rounded lower back that occurs at the bottom of the smith squat. The reason I would never recommend a person “start on the smith machine, then move up to free weights” is because the two movements are so different. I have coached a lot of people, most of them were complete beginners. I had every single one of them start out by doing simple air squats, then move on to an empty barbell , then finally a loaded barbell. The reason for this is because the movements of my progressions are very similar to one another in regards to trunk recruitment, knee position, and torso elevation. On more than one occasion, we have watched on of my newer lifters (less than 2 months training) out-squat a different coach lifting right next to them, and they did it with impeccable form. If your idea of a good squat is keeping your knees together while keeping your butt up and touching your nipples to your knees, you have issues. A smith squat will not prepare you for the movement patterns of a barbell squat, stop using this as an argument and educate yourself on correct technique. 2. Smith squats are safer because they allow you to squat without a spotter.

In the video above, the woman outlines all the benefits a Smith machine can offer to a beginner lifter. These “benefits” are the exact reasons you should NOT be using this machine. The spotting excuse holds little water as well, since nearly every squat rack has guards or catchers on them. You can set these catchers to just below the lowest point of your squat in case you need to bail, thus eliminating one of the biggest arguments for the Smith machine. Another option is to use bumper plates so you can simply toss the bar off your back if failure occurs. Not sure how to bail? Email me! I have worked with women who have literally never set foot in a gym before calling me, and they can squat up to 200lbs within a few months of starting. If a brand new person can squat without a spotter, so can you. 3. Smith squats are no different than squats with a real barbell.

On the topic of the similarities between Smith and barbell squats, we may need to beat a dead horse. Charles Poliquin, my squat Grandmaster, has this to say on the subject: “With a Smith machine, the bar is on a track, and this increased stability decreases the requirement of the body’s neutralizer and stabilizer muscle functions. Therefore, the strength developed on such machines has minimal carryover to a three-dimensionally, unstable environment such as occurs during the freestanding squat. This is an especially important fact to those who use weight training to improve sports performance.” A huge drawback of the Smith machine is that eliminates the need for your body to build stabilizer muscles, as it does the stabilization for you. We may rag on folks who over-emphasize stabilization training, but the bottom line is if you have no stabilization muscles, what the hell kind of training do you think you are doing? In addition to the stabilization factor, the Smith machine places unnecessarily high levels of stress on the patellar ligament and the anterior cruciate ligament. Some bodybuilders favor the Smith machine because of its focus on the quads, but remember folks: Just because it creates a favorable response with a muscle does not mean it is is healthy for a tendon or joint (like the sumo deadlift high pull, or BTN strict press). On a more scientific note, researchers have found that use of the Smith machine resulted in vast reductions of power, due to the increased load during the concentric phase and the reduction of the potentiation from the stretch-shortening cycle as well as a decrease in velocity for the eccentric phase. Now say all of that ten times fast. The long story short is this: stop trying to justify your use of the Smith machine. You say that is is useful to do assisted pullups or to hang rings from? There are literally a thousand other places to hang rings from. It astounds me that gyms will spend thousands of dollars on this piece of equipment so someone can hang a TRX band over it. Get under a real bar, and get a solid coach to guide you on your way. Want to learn more about why the Smith machine needs to sleep with the fishes? Check the sources below.

Sources:  -Poliquin 1  – Schwanbeck, S., Chilibeck, P. D., Binsted, G. A Comparison of Free Weight Squat to Smith Machine Squat Using Electromyography. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009. 23(9)/2588-2591. -Buddhadeev, H., Bingren, J., et al. Mechanisms Underlying the Reduced Performance Measures from Using Equipment with a Counterbalance Weight System. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. 26(3), 641-647.  – Vingren, J., Buddhadev, J., et al. Smith Machine Counterbalance System Affects Measures of Maximal Bench Press Throw Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011. 25(7), 1951-1959. -Poliquin Myths 2

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